Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour II (1998)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | 30 March 2013
This article was previously published with the title "Blueprint to Bangkok" in Sawasdee [Thai Airlines magazine] in 1998, 27(11), pp. 32-7 & cover.

Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour II

Blink and it’s still there. Yes, there really is a Greek-style temple stuck on the roof of a skyscraper in central Bangkok. And further along, a tower shaped vaguely like an elephant and another that looks just like a monster robot.

Fueled by euphoria in the late 1980s into the 1990s, over a thousand new high-rises thrust up in the Thai capital offering sparkling new offices, shopping plazas, and condominiums. An intense competition resulted as architects and developers aimed for the right image, some may say, the right “pose” on the skyline to capture excitement.

The capital’s 21st-century architectural zone may get knocked for being more at home in Boston, USA than Bangkok, but there’s no denying that it serves up a rich variety of styles that shriek for attention. One of the best ways to explore this new architecture is on foot and we’ve designed a one-hour walking tour that concentrates on the radically changed Sathorn Road area and its eclectic mix of traditional Thai houses and glittering towers.

The starting point for the architectural tour is the western section of the elevated square footbridge at the intersection of Sathorn and the new Chongnongsee roads. Standing at its center, the view down Sathorn Road of cranes and new buildings bears witness to the dynamic and unprecedented transformation that is taking place on Bangkok’s skyline.

One long-time resident of the area says that until fairly recently Sathorn was a gracefully tree-lined shaded residential street. While this romantic long-gone era has all but disappeared in the race to sculpt the sky, modern archaeology detectives don’t need to look far for evidence of the past.

The Russian Embassy to the northwest of the walkway, is a gentle reminder of the type of buildings that once dominated Sathorn Road and the historical scale and relationship to the lush foliage that these structures once enjoyed. Looking to the west, the idyllic vision is erased as high-rise Bangkok takes hold. To the southwest, the Bank of Asia, commonly known as the Robot Building, is a contemporary architectural landmark. Designed by Sumet Jumsai, one of Thailand’s esteemed architects, the design includes playful abstract robot parts such as giant shining nuts on the elevations, twin “antennae” lightning rods on the roof and two “eye balls” with metallic lids that stare out from the top of the facade. As a bonus, the architect planned an extensive exterior lighting scheme with strobe lights and dimmers glowing and softening in rhythm to electronic music to be broadcast up and down the street in front.

Further along, and to the right, is Precious Tower, an imposing white structure built to house the booming jewelry businesses. Designed by Rangsan Torsuwan, Precious Tower brings historical Europe to the heart of Asia with the occasional use of gold-colored capitals, Gothic rosary windows on the roof of the car park, a Gothic-windowed atrium and a base with Palladian windows. The design offers [an unusual] solution to the high-rise dilemma: A temple-turned-private club sprouts on top.

North on Silom Road is one of the major shopping, hotel, business and entertainment districts of Bangkok. To the left, is the Monarch Building designed by Forum Architect; to the right, the ITF Building. Both feature stepped recesses leading to the top of the building and demonstrate Bangkok’s requirement that the floor area of a building becomes smaller as it gets taller to allow light onto the street. To the right, and closer down the klong or canal road, is the Diamond Tower, a residential condominium shaped like a cut diamond giving us a reference to Bangkok’s precious stone industry.

Glance to the southeast and travel to Mesopotamia with the design of the Sathorn City Tower. Created by Sathian and Associates, the granite, marble and glass tower is ziggurat-shaped and topped by what appears to be an office headquarters. The elevation design was influenced by setback requirements and the design of P&T Architects’ Exchange Square in nearby Hong Kong, says an architect who worked on the project.

Exit the footbridge at the southeast corner and walk down the klong road to the second soi and turn onto Soi Phra Phinij. This small road presents a startling contrast visually to what we’ve just seen. The mid-rise condominium at number 33 and those across the street, show the influence of the Thai roof on modern design. Peek over the entry gate at number 19 to enter a world of a traditional teak and a romantic vision of the past. Owned by the son of former prime minister M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, the compound includes a large house copied from Thailand’s Sao Chingcha area and two small houses styled on Ayutthaya homes with their distinctive roofs set in a beautiful garden. Further along this road is an eclectic mix of European-influenced homes. If you peek over the gate at number nine, you’ll see a sculpture by Misiem Yipintsoi, a famous Thai artist and the gold medal winner for painting at Thailand’s National Exhibition of Art.

Follow Soi Phra Phinij as it twists and turns until it meets Soi Suan Phlu. South and across the street from the intersection, is a whitewashed Gothic-inspired building reminiscent of row houses. Walk through the ceremonial rosary window entrance of the car park to see the Gothic-style and whitewashed “cathedrominiums” that line the street and appear like mirrored reflections. Pointed glass spires cut into the sky to offer a striking contrast to the traditional teak homes on Soi Phra Phinij.

Now, turn back and follow Soi Suan Phlu to Sathorn Road. Soon the glistening Harindhorn Building will come into view. Designed by Casa, it’s an interesting series of roofs built of mirrored glass that reflect the area’s surroundings. Travelling east on the south side of Sathorn Road one finds the Australian Embassy. Created by Archer, Mortlock and Woodely with ML Tri Devakul, the architecture interplays between the hollowed-square building, water and a landscaped garden filled with tropical plants from various parts of Thailand. Set above a large pool, the design is reminiscent of Bangkok’s colourful history as the City of Klongs.

Walk further along Sathorn Road and stop in front of the Alliance Francaise for a view of Thai Wah I and Thai Wah II. Home to the Westin Banyan Tree hotel and the Banyan Tree spa, the Thai Wah II is currently the tallest building in Thailand and dominates Bangkok’s skyline like a giant exclamation mark. Thai Wah II visually coordinates with Thai Wah I and repeats elements such as color and geometry— squares, rectangles and voids. The rather thin tower has three focal points: the curved extruding extension which holds a two-story Presidential Suite; the sky window, which is a square hole in the façade reminiscent of Arquitectonica’s much-copied Atlantis Condominium in Miami, USA; and a curved white Palladianesque extension that is home to a restaurant with panoramic views across Bangkok.

North and across Sathorn Road from Thai Wah is Abdulrahim Place (with a Standard Chartered logo on its top floors). Its punched-out insertions of glass and gold and voided diamond-shaped cap, plays off of two nearby buildings: the Dusit Thani hotel, with its lengthy gold spire and the Beauty Gems Center with its series of gray and glass triangular roofs repeated to look like abstract gems gleaming from a valuable ring.

The rooftop restaurant at the Dusit hotel also offers spectacular views of another primary business district, Phloenchit / Sukhumvit. The area boasts Baiyoke II, projected to soon take the crown as the city’s tallest building. Also in view is Sumet Jumsai’s Delta Grand Pacific hotel, which is inspired by the nearby lake and takes the abstract shape of a luxury liner.

Keep walking and you’ll come to 19 South Sathorn, one of the few remaining homes in the area. The owner says his two-storey house takes us back to a time when the roads were well kept and shady. “In those days, both sides of Sathorn were lined with cozy cottages and bungalows, each standing inside their own garden plot shaded by the foliage of big trees or almost hidden behind a wealth of flowering shrubs and creepers”, he reminisces. “Every afternoon the fresh sea breeze made life in this quarter more than bearable, in fact, quite enjoyable.” Today, his house is a traditional island of tranquillity in a race for modernity and change.

If the traffic noise, heat and pollution are getting to you, sanctuary awaits just around the corner at the Sukhothai hotel. Designed by MN and Associates, with an interior design concept by Edward Tuttle, the property combines older, traditional forms and puts them into a modern context to create a cool, relaxing place for a leisurely stroll and a cold drink before setting off for more Bangkok adventures.

Click to see Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour I.